Public Order Intelligence Unit

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Many who have been involved in street protests, especially in London, in recent months will have come across the Metropolitan Police’s Public Order Intelligence Unit (POIU), part of its public Order Branch. Led by Inspector Barry Norman, it was set up initially to deal with football hooligans. A recent television document showed Insp Norman and PC Tony Brittain, ‘dealing’ with football supporters.

police video-cameraman


The concept of the POIU appears to be a belief that by actively mixing with its ‘troublemakers’ they are able to gather intelligence about future ‘public order’ incidents and help identify ringleaders. Certainly they have been diligent: POIU officers have been turning up at protests in and outside London, advising local police about how to deal with ‘situations’ such as Reclaim The Streetsprotests and Earth First!actions.


Conversations with other police officers, however, some of whom seem to resent the POIU, suggest that its activities are not universally welcomed within the Met.

The POIU and other TSG officers have also been taking an interest in photographers and journalists. They initially try to be friendly by offering to ‘ex-change information’ about future protests. They will sometimes try ringing them at home. When this fails they get aggressive and suggest that they’ll make life very difficult for you’ if they do not assist. So far the threats have yet to be translated into action but the NUJ’s lawyers are ready to respond if they do. Gathering intelligence on public order activities has always been the remit of Special Branch (SB). Sgt. Brittain’s favourite chat up line — I’ve got a picture of you on my wall at Scotland Yard’—runs against the whole ethos of discreet and subtle intelligence gathering. Certainly since the POIU have been on the scene, activists have become far more aware of plainclothes officers trying to mingle with protesters. It is probably the case that the POIU’s antics are resented by SB even though they presumably appreciate the flow of `intelligence’ that they gather. Thus at one demonstration, a TSG officer, who when asked why he was taking photographs and notes when it was the job of SB, replied: `Because they’re shit!’ disinformation perhaps, but it seems slightly too sophisticated line for the TSG.


Part of the rationale behind this new approach appears to have come from the Met’s postmortem of the Park Lane anti-CJB riot in October 1994. On that occasion the police attempted to stop two sound systems entering Hyde Park As the conflict escalated, protesters eventually succeeded in chasing fully equipped riot police, supported by horses, dogs and vans, out of Hyde Park and into Park Lane. It took the police a long time to regain control of the situation and eventually they cleared Hyde Park. As a consequence many thousands of pounds worth of damage was caused to shops and cars in Oxford Street. (Had the police chased protesters from Oxford Street to Hyde Park, rather than the other way round, thus minimising damage, the Met would presumably have congratulated itself. In the event, having done precisely the opposite, it still congratulated itself! At the time observers noted that individual police units appealed to be acting almost randomly. A police van, for instance, was driven at speed around Hyde Park attempting to run over protesters. Of course this was all emphatically denied by the police at the time. Later, in a report, Commander Kendrick, who had been in charge, conceded that their had been a ‘ cultural abhorrence” by the TSGs to withdraw when ordered. Diplomatically, he noted that “some of the serials responded by advancing in an uncoordinated manner to the crowd while others were withdrawing” . In response the Met set up two ‘command training courses’ to teach senior officers about how to respond they were the ‘Pre-Planned Public Order’ course and the ‘Spontaneous disorder’ course. They also devised the concept of the Public Order Intelligence System which would involve teams of 12 ‘specially-trained’ officers terming Forward Intelligence Teams who would attempt to build a “rapport” with street activists” so that people “likely to provoke disorder can be identified early in the event”.

The activities of the POIU at recent events seems to fit nicely into this pattern. Supposed key activists have been identified by Norman and Brittain and they have then been arrested by ordinary police officers. Many of the 80 people arrested at the RTS action in Brighton on 24 August had been identified by the POIU. Some of the arrested, including a scientologist, suggest that the POIU ‘intelligence’ is still some-what lacking.


So what has the POIU achieved? There is no doubt that the success of RTS,, especially in London, has been a source of intense irritation for the police. Before the major RTS action at the M41 on 13 July, the Metropolitan Police were telling journalists that on this occasion it would fail. They had earmarked sufficient police units to prevent any street being blocked. Certainly when activists arrived at the location the police tried very hard but were eventually overwhelmed. They then started telling the press that the road was a largely irrelevant stretch of Motorway and that the protest had caused no significant delays to traffic. When they eventually discovered that parts of the Motorway had been dug up during the festival the embarrassment of the police was hard to hide. indeed the heavy-handed raid on the RTS a few days later not only exposed these feelings but confirmed failure of the POIU’s ‘intelligence-gathering’.

As activists increasingly become aware of the POIU’s methods, their ability to provide anything remotely useful will diminish. it is hard to understand why senior police officers believe that such provocative and brutish tactics assist them in dealing with public order situations. The presence of the POIU, as with the TSGs, gives people an added incentive to succeed.

It is very easy to regard the state as an united instrument of oppression in which is various arms work in unison. Any contradictions are seen as de-liberate ploys to confuse. In practice, however, things are different. On many occasions protesters have en-countered ordinary police officers who are keen to provoke trouble: their motive is not that they are part of a sophisticated MI5 - led plan to discredit dissent, but because they are about to start overtime and need the extra cash to pay for their holidays. Given the traditional hostility between uniformed and plain-clothes sections of the police, it seems likely that the activities of the POIU and the crude intelligence gathering that is being carried out by TSGs, is resented by their more sophisticated SB colleagues.

The most likely explanation is that Scotland Yard created the POIU just to deal with trouble at football matches. Certainly its heavy-handed tactics of intimidation and abuse appear to have been partially successful in identifying and isolating individuals and gangs at matches. It was possibly on the basis of this success that Norman decided to extend its remit to political demonstrations. It would also help justify its work throughout the year and not just during the football season. For Norman it might also have offered him to chance to add more officers to his four- strong team: for an Inspector to command one Sergeant and two Pc's is baldly a measure of personal success in a career-motivated organisation like the Met.


So how should protesters react to the POIU? Whilst it could be argued that the antics of Norman, Brittain and their overweight Sergeant Sully, have only strengthened the determination of protesters, the fact remains that their primary task is intelligence gathering. Anything that you say or do is noted or videod and no doubt collated at Scotland Yard. Police officers have, for instance, been seen with sheets of photo-graphs with names of ‘key activists’ which have been produced by the Public Order Branch. So even though the POIU’s antics have probably strengthened the determination of protesters—at the very least it has shown them that have achieved something—they should not be assisted in their work. Intelligence gathered by the POIU is no doubt passed on to other units such as the Animal Rights National Index (ARNI) and then used to intimidate individuals and disrupt protests.

By far the best response to the POIU is to ignore its activities. Any questions or threats from the likes of Brittain should be ignored and care should be taken when talking to each other in their vicinity. One should also collect and circulate intelligence about their activities.

`Operation Snapshot’ - Police Surveillance

The year after the free event at Castlemorton Common, the police set up Operation Snapshot, an intelligence-gathering exercise on raves and Travellers, designed to establish a database of personal details, registration numbers, Traveller sites and movements. This information was used as a backbone for an ongoing intelligence operation begun by the Southern Central Intelligence Unit (SCIU), operated from Devizes in Wiltshire and initially co-ordinated by PC Malcolm Keene. The SCIU held regular meetings with representatives of all the constabularies of Britain.

Leaked documents revealed that Operation Snapshot had estimated there to be around 2,000 Travellers vehicles and 8,000 Traveller’s in the UK. In the minutes of a meeting held at Devizes on March 30th 1993, the objectives of the operation included the development of “a system whereby intelligence could be taken into the control room, and the most up-to-date intelligence was to hand”..... “capable of high-speed input and retrieval and dissemination of information.” The meeting was attended by constabulary representatives from Bedfordshire, Avon and Somerset, Devon and Cornwall, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Dyfed-Powys, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire, Kent, Norfolk, Northamptonshire, South Wales, Gwent, Staffordshire, Thames Valley, Warwickshire, Surrey, Suffolk, West Mercia, West Midlands, Ministry of Defence and the National Criminal Intelligence Service (Hampshire and Essex sent apologies).

They were all asked and all agreed to provide the Southern Central Intelligence Unit with “any information, no matter how small on New Age Travellers or the Rave scene”. The leaked minutes revealed the database was designed to hold one million items of information.

After a short period the Northern New Age Traveller Co-ordination Unit, designed to cover the north of Britain, was established and operated from Penrith in Cumbria.

Benefit Clampdowns

Further monitoring information was gathered via social security offices. The working party report on Itinerant Claimants prepared for the DHSS in 1986 advised that “in the interests of advance warning and the safety of staff, we recommend better liaison with the police.”

A 1993 internal Benefits Agency bulletin (issue 24/93) headed ‘New Age Travellers’ and marked “not to be released into the public domain”, stated: “Offices will be aware of the adverse reaction from the media following the treatment of claims from this client group last summer [Castlemorton]. Ministers are concerned that the Benefits Agency and Employment Services take all necessary steps to ensure that claims from this group are scrutinised carefully.”

The bulletin reports that a National Task Force has been set up to “monitor the movements of such groups of Travellers” and to “inform relevant District managers of their approach and numbers”. In the back of the bulletin is a list of telephone numbers for all the regional police contacts in both the Northern New Age Traveller Co-ordination Unit and the Southern Central Intelligence Unit. Every constabulary in the country, including the Ministry of Defence police, had at least one but usually several, such co-ordinators.

Also included in the bulletin was a possible itinerary of festivals for summer 1993.

In 1995, the Benefit Agency conducted a census of New Age Traveller benefit claimants including their personal details.


A leaked copy of the results suggested there to be 2,000 such claimants. In July 1996, more leaked documents revealed that the Agency was once again asking regional offices to carry out a census, the results of which are as yet unavailable. After October 7th 1996, when the Job Seekers Allowance scheme began, benefit may be halted if “appearance” or “attitude” “actively militates against getting a job”.

The implications for the further selective targeting of the Traveller community are obvious.

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